The Government Domain: Another Redesign for THOMAS

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and contributing author for The Congressional Deskbook, 2005-2007 (TheCapitol.Net).

Old and New

THOMAS, the legislative Web site from the Library of Congress, has received its second facelift in the space of a year. (For information on the previous set of tweaks, see my January 2005 column THOMAS: New Congress, A Few Changes.) The latest redesign, announced in a November 2005 press release, does not add much substantial content or functionality but gives THOMAS an updated look similar to the main Library of Congress web site and a consistent site-wide navigation scheme that certainly was needed.


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The current THOMAS website.





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THOMAS website prior to November 2005.


Style

THOMAS has evolved continuously since its 1995 launch, adding new databases and features over the years. As a result, the old home page had begun to look like a patchwork of links. The November redesign imposes a uniform style to make THOMAS look less like patchwork and little more like a suit cut from the same cloth. Now, users are more likely to notice the links to the handy appropriations bills chart and the Presidential Nominations and Treaties databases. These had been tacked to the bottom of the old page, possibly because they were added later than other content or didn't seem to fit anywhere else.

Direct links to other legislative resources on the Web had been spread across the top and side of the former THOMAS home page. The new design groups these and other external links into categories such as Government Resources and For Teachers. It retains direct links to keys sites like the House and Senate home pages and elevates the visibility of many Library of Congress resources, such as the Century of Lawmaking collection of digitized congressional documents from 1774 to 1875.

Standard headers with breadcrumb-style navigation have been added and that's a good thing, but old navigation panels haven't been taken away. In some places, such as the Congressional Record screens, you will have to see your way through a few layers of header build-up. I imagine the next redesign will integrate the database specific headers into the standard breadcrumb headers.


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Congressional Record headers.




Another minor style gripe concerns the chronological display of a bill's status steps in the Bill Summary & Status (BSS) database. THOMAS formerly displayed House actions in black and Senate actions in a purple color. This made it easy to quickly scan the legislative action in two ways, both chronologically and by chamber. Now the status steps are all displayed in the default black color, making it more tedious to sort one chamber's activity out from the other's.

What seems to be getting the most attention about the new THOMAS, however, is that researchers who do more advanced searching now have to do more clicking. The redesigned home page is full of direct links to educational information and to simple searches such as finding what bills a Senator has sponsored or pulling up a copy of a bill by its bill number. This is understandable. THOMAS serves a global audience, and it is not easy to make something as complex as legislative searching accessible to such a diverse user base. And tasks that users do often should be easy to execute from the home page. But now one has to be a bit like a truffle-sniffing dog to get to the real treasure of THOMAS: the advanced search screen for the Bill Summary & Status (BSS) database. Bookmark the link at the end of the previous sentence, or do the following every time: click on "Bills, Resolutions"; click on "Search Bill Summary & Status"; and then click on "Try the Advanced Search."

Expert searchers can adapt to finding buried links, but broken links provide more of challenge. Broken links in the web pages for the Legislative Indexing Vocabulary (LIV), the thesaurus for records in the BSS database, have gone un-mended for the past few weeks. In the advanced BSS search, LIV help is offered through a link labeled "What is a standard subject term?" Click on it, and you'll get a page with a link to more information on the LIV. Click on that, and you get a page whose links to searching and browsing the LIV are both broken. But do not give up hope. Take a look at the general search help page for BSS and scroll to the bottom. The link there for "searching or browsing a list of subject terms" does lead to a functioning version of the LIV
.

Substance

The Presidential Nominations database now links to printed Senate nomination hearings on GPO Access. Not all nominations involve committee hearings, not all hearings are printed, and hearings often take time to appear in print. With these conditions in mind, I was prepared to find few links to hearings. In the first few weeks after the launch, I found even fewer than expected because some links were not present even when printed hearings were available on GPO Access. Records for high profile nominations-such as those for Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State and Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General-were not linked to the hearings at GPO. Fortunately, this problem appears to have been fixed by a December 11th system update. Thank you, THOMAS.


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Nomination record.



The new THOMAS also features links from its Treaties database to the full text of Senate treaty documents as carried in the GPO Access Congressional Documents database. GPO Access has these documents online for the 104th Congress to present. The THOMAS Treaties database goes back to the 90th Congress, so naturally you will not find links for those back years. The associated help file on THOMAS explains this and other details that will be useful to you when searching treaties records in the older congresses. What is not so obvious is that links to the treaty documents appear only in the brief display of search results. Select a search result and view the record in full, and you will no longer see that link. This gets to be a problem when your search only pulls up one record, rather than multiple hits. A single record result will automatically display in the full format, and you will not know that you are missing the link to the treaty document.

On a positive note, the new THOMAS features helpful help files provided in context, at the point where help is needed. The Bills, Resolutions page guides new users to selecting among the Bill Text, Bill Summary and Status (BSS), and Multiple Congress options. The Bill Text search page explains what a "floor action" or an "enrolled bill" is, linking to help right at the spot where the searcher is provided the choice of limiting by these status steps.


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Bill text.



Future Directions

If THOMAS weren't such a wonderful resource, researchers wouldn't care so much about every redesign and every possible future direction. But it is a popular site providing free access to the workings of our elected national legislature, and each change and improvement brings a new round of suggestions. Here are mine:

  • Highlight the value of the BSS database. It has excellent summaries of each bill, written in plain English by the legislative attorneys of the Congressional Research Service. It has status steps that track the progress of legislation while providing direct, in-context links to the related congressional documents.

  • Fully integrate the Legislative Indexing Vocabulary into the BSS database, in the style that the ERIC Thesaurus is integrated into the Education Department's ERIC database.
  • Update the search engine (evidently there are plans to do so) and improve the documentation about how word searches work on THOMAS.
  • Provide email alert or RSS feed services for regularly updated content such as the Congressional Record Daily Digest. (GPO has begun work with RSS feeds and, I hope, will be adding alert services related to congressional documents at some point in the future.)
  • Provide content in XML and other machine-friendly formats so that it can be used by others to develop more free services such as that provided by GovTrack.us.

More news on the congressional data front

  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added RSS feeds for its daily announcements of new GAO reports and testimony. Look for the orange RSS icon on the home page. GAO's email alert service is still available and still offers updates tailored by topic, such as health, energy, or national defense. No topic-specific RSS feeds are available at this time.

  • This month the Washington Post Company launched the U.S. Congress Vote Database of House and Senate floor votes from the 102nd Congress (1991) to the present. Aggregate information for each congress features lists of votes with the narrowest and widest margins, lists of late-night votes, and lists of Members who frequently missed votes. Each vote total is broken down by the party, state, region, baby-boomer status, gender, and-yes-astrological sign of the Members who voted. In the roll call lists, Members' names link to profiles from the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. For vote trackers, the site offers RSS feeds for the votes of individual Members of Congress and for the most recent ten congressional votes.